In early 2022, Wriddhiman Saha was despondent and desolate. Unceremoniously dumped from the Indian Test squad ahead of the two-match series at home to Sri Lanka, the wicketkeeper-batter also had his commitment questioned by an official back home at the Cricket Association of Bengal after he pulled out of the 2021-22 Ranji Trophy citing personal reasons.
The axe from the National team was the first time since M.S. Dhoni passed on his wicketkeeping gloves that Saha wasn’t part of the Indian roster. Saha hasn’t played a Test since then, with K.S. Bharat and now Ishan Kishan leap-frogging him in the race to be the second-choice after Rishabh Pant. The tiff with Bengal wasn’t resolved and that led to him severing ties with a state for whom he had played all career, including 52 times in the Ranji Trophy.
For most players in the wrong side of 30s as Saha was, such unsavoury happenings would have spelt the end of their careers and marked a quiet retreat into the commentator’s box or a coaching role in one of many franchise cricket leagues that have mushroomed around the world.
ALSO READ: Saha joins Tripura as mentor-player
But not for Saha. The now 39-year-old has completed two successful seasons with Gujarat Titans in the Indian Premier League, winning the title on debut in 2022 and finishing a creditable finalist to Chennai Super Kings in 2023. Saha has played 28 of Titans’ 33 matches, including all 17 in 2023, scoring 688 runs at a healthy average of 27.44 and a strike-rate of more than 120.
After quitting Bengal, Saha took up a player-cum-mentor role with Tripura. In the 2022-23 Ranji Trophy, with Saha as captain, Tripura secured the first-innings lead against former champions Gujarat and Punjab, also over the then defending champion Madhya Pradesh.
This season, in the just-concluded Vijay Hazare Trophy group stage, he led Tripura to famous wins against reigning champion Saurashtra and heavyweight Mumbai. The Northeastern state finished third behind Mumbai and Kerala in Group-A. One more victory would have given Saha’s men a genuine chance at making the knockouts.
“When I landed in Tripura after leaving Bengal, it didn’t feel like I had come to some new team,” Saha told The Hindu on the sidelines of the Vijay Hazare Trophy match against Saurashtra at the Alur Cricket Stadium. “The common thing that connects me with Tripura is the language. We both speak Bengali and I have played with their players in the zonals. So I knew them pretty well.
“The environment was also such that, as a captain, I could get my message across 100%. Whatever I asked of the team, they have given me. That also means I should be delivering. So it’s both ways and it has been great.
“We have performed consistently. Percentage-wise, the wins may not be that high, but we are improving steadily. We have built a good environment, and overall, batting and bowling contingents are shaping well. If this continues, we will win more matches.”
Saha’s shift to a less-heralded team is in line with what many a senior accomplished cricketer has done in the Indian domestic circles. Uttar Pradesh’s RP Singh played for Gujarat, so did Piyush Chawla and Andhra’s Venugopal Rao. Robin Uthappa turned out for Kerala after leaving Karnataka and Ganesh Satish, a former Karnataka captain, played for Vidarbha and even helped the side win the Ranji Trophy. Ganesh is now at Tripura alongside Saha, lending some steel and high-level tactical know-how.
“Smaller teams’ players may not have much experience about how to chase a target or about how to convert a start into a bigger innings,” Saha explained. “If two or three experienced players come in, it definitely helps, even in practice sessions. The role of a professional is exactly that — to share knowledge, charge up the atmosphere and take the team along.”
What Saha has brought to Tripura is his assured presence behind the stumps and a calm head. The skills that made him the best gloveman in India are still in tact — safe and orderly collection, supreme anticipation and high levels of concentration. Like Mohd. Azharuddin at his best, there is an economy of movement in what he does, but there is seldom a situation where he is not at the right place at the right time.
Pant-style acrobatics are not for him, though when needed, he can summon a diluted, but equally effective, version of them. So much so that, during Tripura’s match against Kerala last week at Alur, when he dived to his left to latch on to a fast ball that was racing down to the leg-side boundary, chants of “Superman Superman” reverberated.
“I don’t train much quantity-wise,” Saha said. “It has reduced a lot. I focus more on recovery now because the ageing process will not stop. So it has become more about quality practice than quantity.”
“In T20 cricket, ‘keeping is not very hectic, because not many balls reach the wicket-keeper...only about 10 or 12 maximum. But one-day cricket and Ranji are challenging. If you bat, then you have to come back and keep for 50 overs. In Ranji, it may be more. So I focus more on ice-baths, sleep and relaxation. I do all of that diligently so that I am fine the next day.”
It is astonishing why Saha, at this stage in his career, is willing to put himself through this ordeal and go through the extreme rigours of domestic cricket. He has committed to play a full schedule for Tripura — Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy (T20), Vijay Hazare Trophy (one-day) and Ranji Trophy (four-day). Good performances may result in selections to the zonal teams. For someone who has played 40 Tests for India, winning State-level titles and regional selections do not generally hold much allure.
“Playing with the Indian National team was a different experience. I can’t even describe it,” Saha said. “[But] when I was not selected, I decided that I would play just for the enjoyment of it. During childhood, when I came into cricket, it was only because I enjoyed playing the sport. I will continue until that feeling remains.”
Saha, however, is mindful that his role as a player doesn’t take precedence over his job as a mentor. It reflected in how he was unwilling to be photographed after his team’s splendid win over Saurashtra, and instead asked this correspondent to use pictures of his teammates.
“I left Bengal because there was some jhamela [mess], but even when I was there, I used to share my experience of international cricket, the knowledge and my own personal views with all players. I am doing the same here with Tripura, maybe a bit more.
“The only goal I have now is to help Tripura. Like, I sometimes hold myself back from batting higher up. If there is someone who can get ahead in his career by scoring runs, and get selected for the Deodhar Trophy or Duleep trophy, I allow them. Unless it is absolutely necessary, I don’t bat up the order.
“That is my role — to take the team forward and help them play at a higher level so that players start thinking big and selectors also notice them.”